When it comes to health matters, it’s normal to have a lot of questions. But, since doctors visits are so short these days, it can be a challenge to get all your questions answered in one visit. If you’re some with a chronic condition who goes to the doctor A LOT, it can become a very frustrating cycle of expending lots of time and energy but getting few results.
In my 15 year healing journey I lost count of the number of times I got shooed out of an office, in tears or almost, because I was leaving with no answers, diagnoses that did not make sense, or prescriptions that I was not interested in taking. Some doctors were very kind to me but still did not have much to offer in the way of answers or treatment. Eventually I learned that being prepared saves time, conserves emotional energy, and can help you get more out of your visit. And, when you are clear on what you want out of a visit, you’re more likely to get what you want out of it.
Here are five things you can do to have a better doctor’s appointment and bring more ease to your health care experience over time:
1. Have Your Answers Ready: Whether you are seeing a doctor for the first time or the one hundredth time, you can be certain they will ask you at least a few questions and there is actually a list of standard questions that you can expect in any doctors visit. Having your information ready can save you and your doctor some time and energy. This list includes a lot of the most common questions. The holy trinity in this case is:
- Recent test results. This includes blood, stool, urine and other tests as well as all relevant imaging. A neurologist told me recently that going to a neurosurgeon without a report of your lumbar MRI is like going to the dentist without your teeth. Holding on to x-rays and big stacks of images is not ideal but you can request a DVD of MRI and similar testing at the time when you have it done. Then you can just bring the disc with you when you go to the doctor.
Detailed medication list including dosage. Be sure to have non-prescription medications on there too. You might also include other healing modalities you are doing, like physical therapy, acupuncture, etc. so you don’t have to remember to share that information.
Symptoms. If you have any kind of chronic symptoms, definitely keep a symptom diary. Like if you have headaches and you’re going to see a neurologist, you’ll want to have at least a few weeks worth of daily information on whether you had a headache, what you took for it, whether that helped, associated symptoms, etc. This will help the doctor (and maybe you too) see more objectively if there is a pattern to the symptoms. If you have something complex like Lyme or MSIDS, symptom-tracking can be daunting but start small, be compassionate with yourself, and find a system that works for you. People I know use Google forms, excel spreadsheets, smartphone apps, and good ole pens and composition notebooks.
2. Bring Your Medical Records With You: Since doctors do not have a lot of time, make a one page summary of your diagnoses, symptoms, and recent tests for reference. Bring that, along with additional records that could be relevant to the visit. Chances are the doctor will not look at them, but it’s good to have them on you. This is especially important if you are seeing a new practitioner or anyone outside your usual network because they may not be able to access your electronic medical records. If you do not have copies already, be sure to get them, particularly your test results, from your primary care doctor as far in advance as possible. Sometimes the request process requires release forms and a significant waiting period. Even though the hospital I visit now has a great electronic medical records system, I keep paper copies of my records from previous doctors and hospitals and bring the relevant test results with me to all appointments in a little red folder, just in case a question comes up about the MRI I had 5 years ago. You can easily digitize everything and have it in your phone or on a tablet so you are not lugging a binder, or for some of us, an entire library around. Also, intake forms can be brutal and having medical history easily accessible (especially things like surgery dates) makes the process easier and likely more accurate. Having everything with you is also useful if you have trouble with memory recall or someone else is helping you fill out paperwork.
3. Take Notes and Have a Record Keeping System: I mentioned my folder above. I also keep an electronic record of test results and notes from appointments in Evernote so I can reference it from my phone anytime. OneNote and Google Docs work well for this too, and there are tons of smartphone apps out there (like MyChart and MyMedical) for accessing your records and/or keeping track of your own data. A lot of medical centers now have their own apps so it is worth checking with your doctor’s office. If you see a lot of different practitioners in a lot of different networks, you may prefer to keep everything in one place rather than having to login to different apps. Set yourself up for success by taking the time to create a system that really works for you. If it is hard to use, you will not update it or use it the way you want to. Not sure what to choose? This is a great task to ask family, friends, or fellow patients for support on. Be sure to jot down a few notes before each visit on how you have been feeling and what you want to ask the doctor. First make a list of all your questions, then pick your top two or three must-knows in case you do not get through all of them. Always ask if there is a way to follow up by email with the doctor or another person in their practice in case you have questions later, because you probably will.
4. Do Your Homework: This applies to before and after the visit. Let’s say you’re going to a cardiologist for the first time to ask about rapid heart beat. If possible, familiarize yourself with common relevant heart conditions and testing before the visit so you have some idea of what your doctor is talking about when you get there. After the visit, you might do some research on what they suggest and what alternatives are out there. And by “research,” I do not mean that you should jump down a rabbit hole of online forums and Facebook groups until you end up confused and in tears. Maybe WebMD or the Mayo Clinic websites for the basics but I really recommend going to the library, asking other patients in a support group, or consulting other doctors and healers you have access to (friends, family, etc.). Also make sure that you do whatever homework the doctor assigns you. It is really easy to leave a visit with a list of things to do, like exercises, diet changes, keeping a symptom diary, etc. and then never actually do any of it, or wait a long time to start doing it. This is another place where good notes and/or smartphone apps can be helpful but it could also be as simple as asking a friend to text you after your visit to ask if you got any homework from the doctor, then have them text you a week later to make sure you are doing it. If you do not have anyone like this in your life, try posting your ask in Spoonie Superstars, a support-focused Facebook group I started for folks with chronic illness.
And with all that said about doing your homework, remember that it is your body and you get to decide what to do with it and put in it!
5. Bring Someone With You: If you do not have a condition that requires hands-on assistance from another human, it might not occur to you to bring a buddy to a doctor’s visit. But let me tell you why it is the best. A friend or loved one can provide emotional support, take notes for you, help you fill out forms, help you remember to ask your most important questions, and help you debrief whatever diagnosis, advice, or prescriptions the doctor offers. The right person can also help you make an otherwise hard or icky appointment way better by taking you out for smoothies afterwards, for example.
If you’re someone who is on the hunt for a diagnosis and seeing a lot of doctors, be sure you’re doing everything you can to take care of your emotional health in the process. Seeing doctor after doctor is taxing, stressful, and often traumatic, especially if doctors are making you feel like your symptoms are all in your head. I saw a therapist for years when I was hunting for a diagnosis and found her support invaluable. For years, she was the one person in my life who validated what I was experiencing. It was worth seeing her regularly just to have her say “I believe you. You’re not crazy.” At one point she told me that if all I did was come to her office twice a month and cry, she would love that. And cry I did! Mindfulness practices and support groups are amazing too. I always meditate for at least 5 minutes before an appointment and write down how I want to be in the interaction, i.e. truthful, kind, and compassionate. This helps clear my mind and makes me less likely to take my frustration out on a doctor.